Animal Intelligence and Human Knowledge

Two stories about animal intelligence came across my desk recently.  One was about the ability of fish to use tools, and the other, a story in The Huffington Post, called “this crow is the smartest bird you’ve ever seen” about a problem solving, tool using crow.  Both were interesting and impressive and I enjoyed watching them. Thinking about them, though, over the last few days, I found myself irritated.

There has been a proliferation of stories about animal intelligence of late linked, I believe, at least in part to an increased interest in animals generally alongside an increasing willingness in the natural sciences to ask questions previously considered (by some) ‘frivolous’ (for example, about animal emotions).[i]  This is an excellent thing – we are learning more and more about the animals we share our world with.  But the way it is presented troubles me.  Usually with some headline about the “amazing” capabilities of animals to do one thing or another, it suggests that this is new without ever clarifying that what is new is our knowledge of the behaviour, not usually the behaviour itself.

And the fact that we are “astounded” at whatever new finding we are discussing is itself an indication of our own sense of self importance.  Why wouldn’t we think animals can use tools to survive? Why is our default assumption that animals can’t do things? They live in the world and they manage nicely (for the most part, broadly construed) so why would we assume they can’t do the things that help them live? I find this approach to be indicative of an incredibly odd mindset we have about other creatures (I’m talking in generalities, I realise not everyone thinks this way).  Moreover I think it’s largely the outcome of our culturally accepted belief in human superiority.

Bentham wrote about the ‘insuperable line’ which I have always thought a wonderful term to describe the way in which we arbitrarily construct divisions between other animals, and between humans and the generic group “animal” (which is so generic to actually mean nothing short of “not human”). Throughout the last few hundred years we have seen this line subject to challenge. For example, arguments against giving animals ‘rights’, or simply extending moral concern to them, have been made on the basis that animals did not use tools (Jane Goodall soon put paid to this idea[ii]); or that they did not have language – this made famous during the ‘ape language wars’ of the 1960s and 70s; more recently similar arguments have been made about animals not having morality (being cogently challenged by Marc Bekoff) or that they lack culture.

To my mind this is very telling.  It demonstrates pretty clearly that the insuperable line is one which is subject to movement.  When challenges arise that demonstrate animals are perhaps closer to humans than we previously thought, we simply up the ante and shift the line again.  They can use tools? Oh, ok, but at least they can’t talk.  Oh they can? Hmm, well then we know they don’t have any sense of morality. Oh, they do? Right, well what about culture, only we humans have that, surely?  There’s a futility here, which leads me to my next point.

Perhaps our approach is all wrong.  Instead of trying desperately to prove their difference to us (for those who don’t want to extend moral concern to them) or their similarity (for those who do), perhaps we need a different approach.  This is one of my major concerns with animal “rights” discourse.  Broadly I am supportive of where this discourse takes us (in my eyes, towards liberation) but as long as we are arguing for that liberation based on their similarity to us we miss a fundamental, and really rather obvious point: they are not, and can never be, the same as us.[iii]  Making claims for better treatment of other species based on their similarity to humans serves to actually shore up the idea of human superiority, not challenge it.  Why do they have to be the same as us to be granted moral concern? This sets a very dangerous precedent, for human ‘rights’ as well as those extended (or not) to other species.  It also moves us away from any sociological consideration of the issues: why and how are our societies organised on principles of condoned animal harm, for instance?  How might knowledge production (by both the natural and social sciences) have been implicated in this in the past, or indeed still be, in the present? Why is it that until recently it was considered intellectually radical or dangerous to consider animals on their own merits[iv]?

Analysing the structural and institutional bases of animal oppressions appears to my mind to offer us a different perspective, one that opens up questions about animals, rather than closes them down.  We might, for instance, be interested in tracking major scientific paradigm changes and seeing how this has affected our beliefs about other animals.  While I applaud the wonderful and innovative work being done regarding animal lives by natural and social scientists, and the attendant rise in ‘human-animal studies’ as a field, I can’t help but wonder what might we already know about other animals (including about their intelligence and capabilities) if our ‘insuperable line’ hadn’t closed down avenues of enquiry for the last 300 years or so?

Author: Nik Taylor


[i] I’ve written about increased interest in animals here for those interested.

[ii] And as an aside, it’s always interesting to read the story of the fight she had with the scientific community to get her supposedly ‘anthropocentric’ (she named her animals) work published.

[iii] I also find the masculinist legacy that rights discourse is based on to be highly problematic.

[iv] I realise the generality of this statement may irk, and that there are those who have fought against these constraints. A short blog article can’t do the nuances justice.

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One thought on “Animal Intelligence and Human Knowledge

  1. “Why do they have to be the same as us to be granted moral concern?” An excellent question that I have also been asking for years. It seems awfully immature and self-absorbed to think another being has to be like us to have value.

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